Opportunities

There are many projects to get involved with the DFN from orbital modelling to hardware design to meteorite analysis. As part of the Space Science and Technology Centre, projects are highly multi-disciplinary and are suitable for students with backgrounds in physics, astronomy, geophysics, geology, data science, maths and engineering.

Hazardous asteroids - Strength of Interplanetary Material

Recent space missions to asteroids have gathered detailed information not just on the composition of these bodies, but also on their material properties – e.g. their strength, and whether they are a rubble pile or a single monolithic rock. But we know very little about the strength of small objects in the metre to 10s metre class. This project will look at the breakup of meteoroids in our atmosphere to calculate the bulk strengths of these objects, be it by seismic, infrasound or photometry. It will also look at the origins of this material to determine if there is a correlation between strengths and any specific orbits or regions of the Solar System, or specific asteroids and their families. The results will inform our understanding of the asteroid hazard (do small objects all generate airburst ‘Tunguska-like’ explosions), the lifetime of debris in the inner Solar System, and how we date the ages of planetary surfaces.

Background preferred: astronomy, geophysics, or physics.
Main supervisor: Dr. Eleanor Sansom
Expression of interest

Establishing the source of the near-Earth asteroid population at the decimetre to 10 metre scale

Meteor showers are common enough and give us a spectacular show at certain times of the year. These objects are the trails of dust from comets travelling around our solar system. As they got left behind by their parent body so recently, we can link these trails to their comet. For larger Near-Earth Objects, million of years of orbital evolution have put a smokescreen on the meteoroid/parent body connection. The Global Fireball Observatory continuously scans large areas of the night sky, searching for fireballs from asteroidal material. It has the largest global dataset of this material. By statistically analysing the orbital history of meteoroids observed by the GFO, this project will aim to determine if there are any links between impacting material. Which asteroids create the most Near-Earth Objects that end up threatening the Earth? This will be put in context with the types of meteorites found on Earth, and the results of space missions visiting asteroids like JAXA's Hayabusa spacecrafts and NASA's OSIRIS-Rex. The project will develop an orbital model for asteroids at the decimetre to 10 metre scale. This model will become a general tool for planetary scientists to determine the source of small asteroids impacting the Earth.

Background preferred: data science, astronomy, physics.
Main supervisor: Dr. Hadrien Devillepoix
Expression of interest

Earth Attack - the rate of impact on Earth and other planets

Whether looking for meteorite or tracking satellites, the Desert Fireball Network continuously scans large areas of the night sky, searching for meteorite-dropping fireballs. But how much material is bombarding the Earth on a daily basis? The global data are well constrained for large (>10s m sized) objects, as well as the small, dusty material, but the cm-m size range is poorly known. The DFN dataset contains the largest and most complete record of the number, sizes, and orbits of material hitting our planet. This project will use the DFN’s orbital database to answer the fundamental question: how often do we get impacted? This will place a critical constraint on the impact hazard (there is still an order-of-magnitude variation in estimates of Tunguska-class impactors). These data can also be used to model the flux of material into the inner solar system in general. How much material might be expected on the Moon, or even Mars?

Background preferred: Physics, Astronomy or Planetary Science, interests in coding and data science.
Main supervisor: Dr. Eleanor Sansom
Expression of interest

Meteorite Search and Recovery with Machine Learning

The Desert Fireball Network (DFN), operated by Curtin consists of a large array of astronomical cameras in the outback to recover fresh meteorites with orbits, by observing incoming meteors, and then searching for the fallen rock. Searching for meteorite falls in the remote outback is a costly activity, traditionally done with teams of people camped on site, searching the area on foot. Recently SSTC has successfully developed a drone-based approach, using machine learning to identify meteorites in aerial imagery, and recovered the first fresh meteorite found with a UAV. This project will focus on continuing this development, using the drone in the field, enhancing it's capability and the system's machine learning abilities to support new terrains and new detection techniques, and as needed to recover fresh meteorites from the DFN. There will also be the opportunity for the applicant to investigate applied uses of this aerial anomaly-detection technology, such as search and rescue or environmental monitoring.

Background preferred: Engineering, Physics, and Software OR Earth Science and Geochemistry
Main supervisor: Dr. Martin Towner
Expression of interest

Sample Return Mission Analysis

This project provides an unprecedented opportunity to study rare rock samples recovered from asteroids and the Moon by recent space missions in order to make new discoveries about our solar system. We are in a renaissance of sample return missions from asteroids and other bodies, not seen since the Apollo era in the 1960s and 70s when NASA first returned samples from the Moon. Researchers at Curtin University have been active in analysing samples recovered recently from asteroids Itokawa, Ryugu, and the Moon (JAXA Hyabusa I and II, and China’s Chang’e 5, respectively), and play a key role in NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission anticipated to return samples from asteroid Bennu to Earth in 2023. Asteroids Ryugu and Bennu are most similar to carbonaceous chondrites – rare primitive meteorites found on Earth which preserve evidence for a wide variety of processes in the early solar system. Initial analyses of samples from Ryugu suggests that these materials are even more primitive, fresh, and volatile-enriched reservoir, distinct from anything observed in the meteorite record. The supervisor team have requested Ryugu particles from JAXA which may be available for this project. Upon arrival to Earth, the supervisors will have access to samples from Bennu as part of the OSIRIS-REx mission science team. Aims of the research may include (but not limited to): refinement of our understanding of element and isotope partitioning in the early solar system; assessment of any mechanical and thermal effects of impacts and alteration processes on primitive asteroids; identification and analysis of the isotopic composition of presolar grains preserved in the samples. The student will also have the opportunity to characterise meteorites recovered by the Desert Fireball Network. Analysis of freshly found meteorites has two key advantages: (1) meteorites preserve geochemical signatures when they are collected before they become altered on the Earth’s surface, and (2) findings can be linked to source positions in the solar system via orbital information provided by the fireball. This project will utilise our unique suite of high-specification analytical instruments that allow us flexibility in designing ‘fit for purpose’ analytical protocols appropriate to available rocks and particles. The project will involve various scanning electron microscopy (SEM) techniques, secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS), laser ablation laser ablation inductively couple mass spectrometry (LA-ICPMS), and atom probe tomography (APT), among others that available at the John de Laeter Centre at Curtin University.

Background preferred: geology.
Main supervisor: Dr. Nick Timms
Expression of interest

Terrestrial and Space Based High Speed Imaging for Planetary Science

The Space Science and Technology Centre at Curtin University operates the Desert Fireball Network, the world’s largest fireball camera network. We also build highly capable small spacecraft within our Binar Space Program with the eventual goal of exploring the solar system. Our first spacecraft Binar-1 which trialled our ultra-compact spacecraft platform was launched in October 2021, and we’re currently building the next three spacecraft, Binar-2, Binar-3 and Binar-4, for launch in 2023. Our current fireball cameras capture meteoroid trajectories with high spatial precision, but the temporal resolution is limited by the encoded long exposure captures which encode timing at around 10 samples per second. Traditionally meteor radiometers have been used to collect high time resolution light curves to record fragmentation events and help determine meteoroid final masses via photometric methods. (Final mass after ablation is an important factor in reducing the size of the meteorite fall position error ellipse.) However, fireball radiometers are hard to calibrate due to the large dynamic range and temperature sensitivity of the electronics. To obtain high time resolution data without these drawbacks SSTC would like to develop low (spatial) resolution but high frame rate (240-2000 fps) all-sky imaging systems for the fireball camera network. We envisaged this would be built upon power efficient machine vision cameras and processing hardware. The project may involve fusion of high spatial resolution observations from the photographic camera with high temporal resolution observations from the new imaging system. We would also like to determine if the same or a similar system would be suitable for observing Lunar meteoroid impact flashes to gather additional meteoroid flux data and observing fireballs from low Earth orbit on a future Binar spacecraft. This project may present and opportunity to build imaging payloads to fly on future Binar spacecraft. Nominal project objectives will be: develop, build and deploy a high sampling rate (>240 Hz) fireball light curve measuring instrument at at least 3 locations on Earth. Then build an engineering model of the instrument as a payload for a cubesat. This project will involve; developing, building, deploying and testing imaging systems, embedded software development, fieldwork to deploy field sensors and publication of outcomes. This project will present opportunities to engage with SSTC’s industry partners and may involve the development of spaceflight hardware.

Background preferred: engineering, mechatronics.
Main supervisor: Dr. Hadrien Devillepoix (co-supervised by Dr Robert Howie)
Expression of interest
6 projects

Locating falling meteorites with weather radars

When meteoroids impact the Earth's atmosphere and survive as meteorites, they are invisible to optical cameras in the last 20-30 km before reaching the ground, because they fly below the ablation limit above which they emit light: this is the "dark flight" phase. There has been some success in the USA in locating the meteorites in dark flight with weather radars, drastically reducing the search area on the ground. By cross-matching Desert Fireball Network meteorite falls and weather radar data, this project will explore how this can be done with Australian weather radar systems. Previous knowlegde in meteorite or radar data is not necessary, the student will learn a bit about both during the project, as well as some data science techniques. (image credit: Marc Fries, PSI)

Background preferred: physics or engineering, basic coding skills.
Main supervisor: Dr. Hadrien Devillepoix
1 projects

Mission concept: cubesat fleet for triangulating meteors from orbit

This mission concept will explore how to build a space mission to detect meteors from multiple cubesats in orbit, both around the Earth and Mars. 2+ station meteor observation is routinely done on Earth from the ground, but doing this from orbit presents significant issues. The student can steer the project depending on interest, by tackling the flying in formation problem, comparing imaging payload options, or find innovative solution to do data processing in orbit (image credit: NASA).

Background preferred: physics or engineering.
Main supervisor: Dr. Hadrien Devillepoix
1 projects


Depending on your interest, we likely have a project for you. The specific projects above may be more suited to the backgrounds listed, but we will consider applications from other backgrounds if suitable.
For PhD projects, both Australian and international candidates are welcome to send an expression of interest on any of the PhD projects (we have up to 3 international scholarships for the round closing 2022-08-18).

Background on the research environment

Planetary science involves the study of solar system formation and evolution, the geology of planets and their atmospheres, asteroid impacts and dynamics. Fundamentally, it is the study of how a nebula of dust and gas can evolve to a planetary system, and generate planets capable of supporting life. It pulls together multiple fields, pure and applied, including engineering.

Curtin University has the largest planetary science research program in Australia, inclusive of the Desert Fireball Network, and is looking to expand this vibrant and diverse team with new PhD students.

The Space Science and Technology Centre has pioneered the development of large networked facilities using hardened autonomous observatories. The Desert Fireball Network (DFN) has 50 autonomous stations across Australia. It has been observing ~2.5 million km2 of Australian skies since 2015. It provides a spatial context for meteorites – we can track a rock back to where it originated in the solar system, and forward to where it lands, for recovery by a field party. The database of >1400 meteoroid orbits is larger than the combined literature dataset for >70 years of observation, providing a unique window into the distribution of debris in the inner solar system. With 14 international partners, and facilitated by NASA, the project has recently expanded to a global facility. The Global Fireball Observatory (GFO) will cover x5 the observing area of the DFN, able to track debris entering our atmosphere 24 hours a day. These networks informed the development of a satellite tracking network – FireOPAL – with Lockheed Martin. Although designed for satellite observations, FireOPAL also happens to be a world-class astronomical transient observatory. The DFN, GFO, and FireOPAL are helping us answer fundamental questions in planetary science and astronomy. If you would like to be part of this team, and work with colleagues in universities around the world, at NASA, and in industry, read on.